The Meaning of Passover
Why? What makes Passover so important? What is the essential message of Passover?
When I ask people “what’s the message of Passover” the usual response is “Freedom.” We were slaves, now we are free. If that’s all there were to it, however, Passover would not have lasted as a holiday for millenia. How many African Americans celebrate Juneteenth, the emancipation of slaves in
Passover is much more about faith, and about our fundamental beliefs as Jews. We are told by the Mishnah that every generation is obligated to view themselves as if they, personally, were brought out from
This is a time for us to draw near to God. Spring is a time of renewal and rebirth, and we renew our relationship with our Creator. In the Shema we recite the verse “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt in order to be your God.” The redemption from
The most effective path toward faith is direct experience. Now that I live in Israel, my faith in the importance and centrality of Israel to the Jewish people is incomparably greater than it was before I lived in Israel. Nothing I could have read could have brought me to the same level of understanding as the direct experience.
This is why it is so important to bring our seders to life. No disrespect to my grandfather, but when I was a kid growing up our seders consisted of speed reading the Maxwell House haggadah so we could get to the food. It was mostly in Hebrew, so I had no idea what was going on. I can’t say the experience did much for my connection with the true meaning of Pesach, although it was fun to see my cousins, and the food was great.
Strengthening faith, however, is only one part of the Passover message. The next question is what do we do with that faith? There are two key elements in the Passover experience, on the one hand to reinforce our Jewishness, and on the other hand to remind us of our universalistic values that transcend nationalism.
Why is the Exodus story so central to Judaism? Why do we mention it several times a day in our prayers? Why does the Torah say (quoted in the Shema), “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” instead of “I am the Lord your God who made you?” Wouldn’t it be more compelling to focus on God as Creator as a reason to obey the commandments?
The Exodus story is so central because it celebrates the formation of the Jewish people. Before the Exodus and the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai there really was no such thing as the “Jewish people.” There were 12 tribes descended from Abraham, but it was only after the Exodus and the receiving of the Torah that God gave us all the laws, such as keeping the Sabbath and keeping kosher, that identify us as Jews. Passover’s celebration of our Jewishness, and our special relationship with God, is what has kept Passover alive as a holiday for so many otherwise disengaged Jews. It’s a way to acknowledge who we are, no matter how far we may have strayed.
The Exodus story celebrates our “choseness,” our uniqueness, but that’s not the reason it is mentioned so often in our daily liturgy. One of the most common recurring phrases in the Torah is “because you were strangers in
Celebrating freedom certainly is part of the Passover story, but it’s not simply a “freedom from”—freedom from oppression, freedom from living in fear—but more than that, it is “freedom to”—freedom to serve God. Hedonistic “freedom from” – the sort that teenagers especially crave, no one telling them what to do
– is what Janis Joplin immortalized in song: “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” It’s a very empty freedom.
That kind of empty freedom pales very quickly. After the miracle at the
A certain amount of “freedom from” is a necessary precondition for “freedom to.” Our ancestors needed to be free of the demands of the Egyptians before they could be free to serve God. Today, each one of us needs to be free from whatever our
Once we’ve achieved an element of freedom from, we are ready for the freedom to; the freedom to serve God. And Passover is certainly full of many opportunities to perform mitzvot, to serve God.
When you sit down at your seder this year, remember that the holiday is NOT just about celebrating freedom from Egyptian enslavement. Spend a few minutes of your seder conversation exploring the question of why God wanted us to be free. What are you doing to accomplish that mission?
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